Do You Have a Not To-Do List?

Everyone’s heard of the “To-Do List.” Whether you use Outlook, Gmail, a dedicated task manager like Nozbe (which I use), or the back of a paper napkin, the idea is the same: you list in priority order the items you want to get done. Simple. Elegant. Powerful.

The Not-to-Do List

Photo courtesy of

Until you have more items that you can physically get done.

What Is a Not-to-Do List?

Enter the “Not To-Do List.” I stumbled across this idea several years ago, and I keep coming back to it. The idea is to list all the activities you are intentionally going to stop doing for the sake of greater productivity.

Here’s why this is important. As people succeed at work, they attract more and more assignments. It’s like they become a task magnet. “Give it to Laurie,” they say. “She’ll to a great job!”

The problem is that people are a finite resource. I don’t care how good you are, you only have so much energy and so much time. It’s true for me. It’s true for you.

The only way for these super-productive people to continue to grow professionally without going crazy is periodically to decide what they are not going to do.

Why Do You Need a Not-to-Do List?

This is particularly important for people who have just been promoted to a new job. That’s when you really face the pressure to perform, and it’s the most difficult to say no.

But you must say no if you are going to say yes to the things that really count—both in your job and in your life.

Keep in mind that the great risk for people in a new job is that they continue to do their old job. Read that sentence again.

“Now why would they do that?” you ask? Probably because it is familiar. And probably because their supervisor didn’t tell them they had to stop doing it. Being aware of this dynamic is half of the battle.

How Do You Create a Not-to-Do List?

The other half of the battle is to sit down and literally create a Not To-Do List. Here’s how:

  1. Find a quiet place where you can think.

  2. Look at your previous month’s calendar activities. Write down anything you’re not sure really fits your current job description.

  3. Look at your upcoming appointments for the next month. Again, write down things that are questionable in terms of your current job description.

  4. Go through your to-do list(s) and do the same thing. Write down the questionable activities.

  5. You should now have a list of “not to-do candidates.” Good work! You’re almost done.

  6. Now go through the list and put an asterisk beside each item that is significant enough that you want to add it to your official “Not To-Do List.”

Once you get your list done, share it with your assistant (if you have one) and your colleagues. If you can enlist their help they can assist you in screening out activities and tasks that no longer belong on your to-do list.

It’s especially important to discuss your Not To-Do List with your boss. You need her buy-in so she doesn’t keep assigning you work that both of you have decided you should no longer be doing.

A Real-World Example

Just to stimulate your own thinking, here is a the Not To-Do list I prepared back when I became CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, a traditional book publisher.

Not To-Do List
  1. Review book proposals or manuscripts for possible publication.
  2. Write deal memos.
  3. Negotiate contracts with agents or authors.
  4. Meet prospective new authors unless they have significant brand potential.
  5. Attend publishing meetings unless the topic is vision or strategy.
  6. Write marketing plans.
  7. Travel by car to other cities unless they are less than one hour a way.
  8. Check my own voice mail.
  9. Read unfiltered e-mail.
  10. Answer my own phone.
  11. Respond to (or feel the need to respond to) unsolicited sales pitches or proposals of any kind.
  12. Attend process review meetings unless there’s a compelling reason for me to be there.
  13. Attend trade shows for more than two days.
  14. Serve as a director on more than two outside boards.

The Key to Maintaining Balance

Even if you haven’t just been promoted, you will find the Not To-Do List helpful. This is especially true if you want to maintain some semblance of balance in your life.

If you don’t periodically take a machete to your to-do list, it will eventually grow over everything and strangle you! I know of no better way to “buy time” than with this simple tool.

Question: What do you need to stop doing? Share your answer on , , or .

Want to Launch Your Own Blog

or upgrade to a self-hosted WordPress blog? It’s easier than you think! Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it, step-by-step. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started. Watch My Free Screencast
I’m no longer running comments on my blog. For more information regarding this decision, please read this post.